Gathered near the White House fence, the expatriate Libyans sang and chanted and laughed, celebrating the demise of Col. Moammar Gadhafi.
Some waved American flags; others wrapped themselves in the new flag of Libya. Their joy was infectious.
It was Thursday night, and Gadhafi — the homicidal tyrant who had ruled Libya for more than 40 years — was indisputably dead. For the Libyan celebrants, it was almost too good to be true. They hugged each other and whooped. Only a couple D.C. police officers loitered nearby, barely paying the Libyans any attention.
I was there with 45 Grade 7 and 8 students from a Toronto school attended by two of my sons. We were there on a field trip, and running into the Libyans at the White House was a wonderful surprise.
The Libyan and Canadian kids talked, asking questions about what their respective countries were like.
We snapped photos of the Libyans and awkwardly offered congratulations (is it right to offer congratulations when a despot is executed on a street like a dog, as Gadhafi was?).
Watching them, it was impossible not to reflect on what the future holds for Libya, and Libyans, as they enter the post-Gadhafi era.
Because, rest assured, Libya is one of the far-away countries that matters to us, or should. Its position in Africa, and the Arab world, gives it tremendous strategic importance. Its vast oil reserves, too, aren’t without consequence to those of us in the West — that is why, for example, Albertans have toiled in the Libyan oil fields for many decades. We have a stake in Libya.
At the commencement of the Libyan civil war, several months ago, this space observed that we should not simply assume that the newly liberated Libyan people would be grateful to us for our involvement, principally in the form of NATO airstrikes.
For much of its history, Libya has frequently been the target of conquering crusaders — and it is for this reason that, in 1969, Libyans were wildly enthusiastic about the coup that brought the young military officer named Gadhafi to power.
Libyans remember that we have not always been on their side.
Libyans also recall the days, not so long ago, when our leaders — from British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Canada’s own Paul Martin — came to Libya to heap praise on the despised Col. Gadhafi, and to curry favour with his tyrannical regime.
Two days after Gadhafi’s death, its transitional government declared that it was to be an Islamic state.
It is a declaration that should surprise no one — Gadhafi persecuted Islamic leaders as much as he persecuted opponents of his regime. As in much of the Middle East, Islam is the religion of the poor and the oppressed.
Libya is now piloting through uncharted waters; no one knows, for certain, where it will be in six or 12 months from now.
Watching the Libyans celebrating in front of the White House, this week, we could only hope that the path they choose is a democratic one.
All of us in the West have something to lose if the path is the wrong one.